Mad Fientist Interview

I was recently interviewed for the Mad Fientist podcast.

Go take a listen to it here.

We talked about how I got to where I am, my motivations, my writing, my education, and how I go about with my real estate investing.

In other news, I feel a bit like I’ve been neglecting my readers here. I’ve been too busy having fun going for bike rides, starting a big vegetable garden, and hanging out with my friends. I used to do a lot of my writing during downtime at work or while on the commuter train. Now that I no longer have that kind of downtime built into my schedule writing is always competing with a lot of tempting activities.

I have had some successful job interviews at various places in the past few weeks and am expecting to be working again within the next couple of months. I’m sure being back to work after almost a year of not working will give me plenty to write about and more downtime to write it in. I haven’t worked since I quit my part-time job last September. It’s easy for the non-working life to feel ‘normal’ and there’s nothing like a 9-5er to remind me how good I’ve got it. The good news is that with any of these jobs, plus my rental income, I ought to be able to save enough to pay cash for another couple of houses within the next 6-12 months. At which point I’ll be thinking about transitioning from calling myself FI to declaring myself “retired”.

And if I end up taking a “permanent” job instead of a contract job, or have a contract job that turns into a permanent job, then I’ll have to deal with when exactly to pull the plug since I’ll have to balance my desire to pad my savings ever higher against my desire to be free from a job, the so-called ‘golden handcuffs’ problem. But that’s going to depend on a lot of things that are unknown right now, like how much I enjoy the work and how well my rental investments are doing. I could see myself hanging on for an extra year or two beyond what it takes for me to get my additional rental properties, just to pad the coffers and be extra safe. Though I could also see myself quitting work just a couple of months after I’ve got my 4th rental setup. We’ll see.

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The Spartan Student

I’ve been following Ken Ilgunas for a while now ever since he started blogging about his life living in a van on the Duke campus in an effort to keep his costs down and afford school without taking on debt. I just finished reading Ken’s recently released book, “Walden on Wheels: On The Open Road From Debt to Freedom” in which he details the first few years of his adult life trying to find some adventure, purpose, education and freedom.

Ken reaches back and writes well on that feeling, post high school, I remember when I was offered up a path to an easy middle-class life; college, careerism, managing credit wisely, providing me with the comforts of a reliable car and a cable subscription while I vest into a pension or build up a 401k over the course of a 40 year career. Some people navigate that path well, and with enthusiasm. But for others it evoked a sense of dread and depression. Could that be all there is? Am I forever limited to exploring the world in 2 week chunks of guided tours, ever in a hurry to get back to my job? Will my greatest “adventures” be limited to preplanned rafting trips that have glossy brochures promising to satiate my need for an adrenaline rush, but only with noon-time breaks for catered lunches? Will mortgages and debts mean I have to forever sell the better part of my day in exchange for a paycheck?

The safety and comforts of modern life are nice, but at what cost do they come?

Ken manages to find some danger, discomfort, adventure and untouched natural beauty in the Alaskan wilderness. His accounts of being nearly lost on a mountain by himself while battling exhaustion and hordes of mosquitoes, of encountering a grizzly and realizing he’d left his shotgun behind, and of befriending some locals who live near subsistence lifestyles, goes to show that there is still adventure to be found in the modern world, even for a middle-class suburban kid, so long as he has the courage to go out and find it.

A large aspect of Ken’s story is his financial journey. He started out with massive loans from his undergrad degree and chose to take them on with extreme frugality and persistent hard work. And then he found a way to finance a graduate education without having to worry about any more loans.

Ken’s writing taps into a youthful, urgent sense for life and an intense appreciation of the natural world, but without ever becoming merely sentimental, not an easy feat. And something that can only be done when it comes from a sincere and passionate place. You can follow him as he grows through his journey, vacillating between rejecting the safe, tepid middle-class trajectory society offers him in favor of the rugged wilderness, but then later embracing the liberal arts and higher learning that only civilization can offer. I don’t think Ken sees the world as a dichotomy of either rejecting the modern world on the one hand, or embracing all out consumerism and careerism on the other. It’s more that his sense of balance between safety and comfort, and between natural and manmade beauty, and between freedom and responsibility, is maybe a little more examined and a little more extreme than it is for most of us.

Ken’s book was a bit of a realization for myself about how far I am from that guy I was when I lived in tents, carried all my possessions in saddle-bags, and would call two or three different places “home” within the course of a year. Now I’m settled into a 3 bedroom bungalow, have my investments to care for, and a beloved partner to keep me company. I don’t long for those previous days, I like where I am, building my garden, regularly visiting with friends and family I love, and having a comfortable space to call home. But it was nice to revisit that mindset for just the short while I spent reading Ken’s account of his own journey.

Ken’s book is worth a read if you want to rekindle, or just remember, that youthful spirit that often gets slowly snuffed out by complacency and mounting obligations, or just gets set aside completely at too young an age by so many others simply out of a fear of having to navigate the task of blazing a new trail. – A fear that Ken conquers with a refreshing, and all too rare, admirable bravery.


Check out Ken’s Blog here, and the book here.

Walden on Wheels

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A Brief Sabbatical

This past week I started floating my resume out, goose-stepping my way into some possible temp work. The past few months have been nice. Since I finished rehabbing my last rental property in January and got a new tenant in place I haven’t had much of a to-do list. I spent three weeks in West Africa in March upon an invitation from a friend of mine who’s originally from Ghana and was going home to visit family. I was treated like a part of his family, put up in nice homes and fed a lot of home-cooked meals. I came home with a deeper appreciation for those of you who plan to retire abroad, or have already done so. I see the attractiveness of it, I do. It’s adventurous, exciting, and a chance to make everything new, including yourself. But for now and in the foreseeable future, I’m happy with my home where it is.

I was also able to tag along on a road trip with a group of friends to Miami, Myrtle Beach and as well as a couple of nights in D.C.. We split all the costs four ways, took turns barbecuing the majority of our  meals on the beach, and shared hotel rooms, so the expense was minimal.

Since the weather’s improved over the past couple of weeks I’ve been able to take my bicycle out on some twenty to thirty mile rides. It turns out that over the last few years while I was adding digits to my bank account, and letters to the end of my name, I was also adding some inches to my waist. So it’s been nice to be able to reignite my more active hobbies. I’ll be outside in the next couple of weeks tearing up some grass to make room for a summer garden. My father offered to loan me his roto-tiller but I told him I’d rather take a stab at doing it by hand.

Financially everything is going fine. But I do want to increase my passive income some more. I’m comfortable where I am and it’s not a bad life at all. But I do feel a bit exposed just getting by. If I ever had a problem tenant things would be tight. And there are some projects I’d like to do that I couldn’t afford right now. Like building an alternative energy vehicle in my garage, getting solar panels, maybe heating my house with thermal solar vacuum tubes coupled with a massive underground heat storage system. – You know, fun stuff.

So right now I’m financially independent. But I’m not ready to call myself retired. This is more like a brief sabbatical. I do expect sometime in the next few years to be in a place where I’m 90% sure I’ll never take on a “regular job” again. Even then there will be a good chance I’ll do things like handle a few legal cases, rehab another property if I find a good deal, build stuff and wind up selling it at a profit, maybe start a part-time business or help a friend with a business of theirs.

The nice thing now is, when I do get some work, 100% of my earnings can go towards investments, since I can afford to live off of my rental income. I’m hoping to land a 6-12 month gig, or maybe a couple of 3-6 month assignments with a break in between. I’m definitely not done with real estate, since there are still good deals around and I think they will continue to be around for at least another year. I’m not sure if my next purchase will be another long-term rental, or something I try to rehab and put back on the market for resale. It’s going to depend on the work I find and what kind of real estate deal I fall into. I like to remain flexible so I can just take the best deal available rather than shoehorning my way through the steps of a meticulously laid out master plan. If I find a good deal on a property that would make a good rental, I’ll go for it. Or if I find a good deal on a property that would work better being rehabbed for resale, I’ll do that.

In the meantime I’m just going to keep my hook in the water. And while I’m waiting for a bite I’ll be taking the bike out, getting the garden ready, and building the calluses on my finger tips with my guitar fret.

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The Surplus

As I’ve been settling into my new land lording lifestyle I’ve started taking a look at the new balance sheet. I’m currently taking in $900/month from house 1, and $1,000/month from house 2. After taxes, water bills, trash bills and insurance I’m netting about $1,400/month from the two houses. I also like to set aside an additional $300/month for future maintenance and vacancies, which leaves me with about $1,100/month left over.

My personal monthly budget includes; taxes on the house I live in, utilities, insurance, gas and groceries. After all those “bare necessities” are paid for I’m left with a monthly surplus of about $530/month.

Out of that has to come the discretionary and occasional expenses like vehicle replacement/maintenance, clothing, gifts, entertainment, hobbies, etc..

I definitely think it’s a sustainable budget as long as I remain diligent about keeping expenses in check.

But it leaves little room for some things I’d like to do in the future like putting up a PV array, building a solar thermal heating system, playing around with other alternative energy systems, flight lessons, buying a second-hand sailboat or RV, maybe building a green house on to the side of my home. After those projects are done with I’d also like to build up a securities portfolio so that my financial safety margin just gets bigger and bigger as I age.

I think what I’d really like, in order to make those types of projects feasible  is to be running a surplus closer to the $1,500/month range.

Which means, basically, I want one more rental property. But I’ve invested almost all of my savings into the 3 houses I own now, so I need to come up with about $20k-$30k in order to do it.

I see a few avenues for making this happen:

1. Borrow. I have no debt right now and about $250k of equity in my 3 homes, and a good track record with real estate so far. But I don’t have a job. When I had my part-time job last year I approached several banks to see if I could secure a home equity loan on one of my properties, but since my rental income was newly established, and my part-time job income wasn’t very much, no bank or credit union would loan me money.

I do have several friends who I could approach about some kind of secured loan/investment/partnership deal. I could take someone’s money, get a property purchased, rehabbed, and rented, and then just throw virtually all the rental income from that property back to the investor until the loan is paid off with an appropriate amount of interest added on to compensate them for their risk. The whole thing could probably be paid back in less than 5 years. I could also break it down so it’s not so daunting an amount by asking for, say $10k from a few friends rather than $30k from one.

I could also look into alternative financing like peer to peer lending.

2. Sell. I could sell one of my houses at its new, higher value because of the rehab work I’ve done. I could get $80k-$90k from one sale and use that money to buy two or maybe even three distressed properties to replace it. I’m a little averse to this plan because I purchased and fixed up the properties I did with an eye towards them being easy to rent out, not easy to resell. To get the maximum return on resale I would really have to put in a little more work on the places like re-siding and getting prettier appliances. And they’re small places, good for rentals, but not likely to be anybody’s “dream home” so I’m not sure how long it would take to sell. Plus, they’re good rentals providing a good income stream and I’d hate to sell at what, in my area, is pretty much the bottom of the market.

3. Work. I think with a small amount of effort and patience I could get a temp job in the $30/hr, 40 hr/week range. Large law firms, when they’re commencing a big law suit with hundreds of thousands or even millions of documents to sift through, will farm out work to lawyers to help sort through it all on a temporary basis, often on a 3 to 6 month contract basis. It’s a soulless, uninteresting, repetitive grind that most lawyers see as the mark of a failed, dead-end career. And indeed, if you had to do that for years when your life goal was be a crusader of justice or to make partner and eat fancy lunches, I could see why.

But for me, looking to scrounge together ~$25k, putting my nose to the grindstone for 6 months in a $30/hr temp job might be a pretty good arrangement.

4. Be Entrepreneurial. I think of this as a scatter shot approach to develop multiple avenues of income. Kind of like working a job, just without the mandatory regular schedule. I could do some legal work here and there. Handyman work here and there. I could buy, fix up, and sell things at a profit like furniture or vehicles. I could make a plan to try to make some money off of my garden or worm-farming. Play the credit card game of collecting $500 sign up bonuses. Brush up on my PHP and build some websites. Look for some avenues to get paid for my writing.


Right now I’m leaning towards option 3, mostly because it’s the simplest and likely fastest way of getting to my goal of having an extra rental payment coming in each month. But I’m not ready to commit to anything just yet. I jumped on an opportunity to do some travelling next month for only the cost of my plane ticket. There’s no hurry to take any action right now since I think real estate deals in my area are still going to be around for at least another year or two. So for right now I’m going to just enjoy myself, mull things over, and decide on my future financial course of action sometime this summer.


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Back Where I Started

I stumbled onto my old post about my time living in a tent in the desert and I started to think about how my life has changed since. Back then I didn’t have to work because it cost me so little to live. And now, recently, I have finally achieved that status again. My land lording income covers my living expenses, which remain small compared to my neighbors, but enormous compared to my past self. – That guy who called a tent in the desert his home, and a foraging rabbit his dinner.

I rode out of that desert for the final time on my motorcycle, determined to work, save, and invest enough so that I could spend the rest of my life as peacefully as I spent that year in the desert. – Without deadlines, commitments, mandatory projects or assignments. And with time for reflection, friends, rest and solitude.

Here I am, it’s been eight years since I lived in a tent without needing a job. And now, after years of effort, I live in a house without needing a job.

All that work to get right back where I started! Except now I have a refrigerator, a car, computers, a tv, a varied and downright indulgent diet; I don’t have to light a cow patty ablaze to cook my supper. I have air conditioning, a washing machine and dishwasher. – As much running hot water as I could ever want. – A flushing toilet, virtually unlimited electricity, a warm hearth and even a paved driveway. If I could stand next to my old self it would be like seeing a king with a pauper.

Back then I was worth maybe a couple of thousand bucks. Now I’m up over a quarter-million and climbing.

It was a lot easier to be free then because my costs were so few. I had almost nothing but was able to go for over a year without a job. All I needed was a steady hand to catch my dinner. My more typical lifestyle I live now requires, as a minimum, my quarter-million bucks to maintain without income from a job. – Quite a difference in start up costs between the two ways of living.

For me, it was worth the effort, because it really didn’t take all that much. I was lucky enough to land a high-paying union job, diligent enough to save the vast majority of my earnings, and smart enough to make some clever investments along the way. But if those opportunities weren’t there I probably would have been better off just building a small adobe cabin where I was, rather than trying to toil away at some job for the rest of my life just so that I could have silly things like a refrigerator.

My modern house is comfortable, and I’m grateful for it. But it isn’t necessary for a happy life. I’m sure of that. And it definitely takes a lot of effort to accumulate enough assets to keep such a home without an earned income. Especially when you can go live in a tent for close to nothing.

Having that knowledge, and the ability to be comfortable living in a tent again if I had to, is empowering. It makes me fearless.

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When I was on my cross-country train ride last August I met a couple in their early 60′s from Australia who had been retired since their late 30′s. They joined us for some wine in our sleeper car for a few hours after dinner one night. Their retirement was a result of growing a business for about ten years that ended up being immensely profitable. Which I think is different in key ways to what I’m doing. My goal since my early 20′s has been to retire early and any money-making venture since then has been decided upon based on how it will further that goal. Whereas their goal was to start a successful business and when the opportunity to retire early happened to present itself they took it. We definitely have a lot in common and have compatible personalities. But I do think their are key differences between someone who has a long-term goal of early retirement and someone who sort of stumbles into early retirement after some great business success.

When I offered them some wine around 2 in the afternoon the next day they declined and told me they don’t drink before 5. Because about a year after they sold their business and decided they were “retired” they found themselves one day around eleven in the morning, in their pajamas, opening a bottle of wine while watching a children’s cartoon and realized they needed to make a change. One of which was a rule, no drinking before 5 pm, to keep them from laying around all day. It’s interesting that it took them a whole year to get to that point.

It’s been about 3 weeks since I finished work on my last rental house. And now here I am with no work or projects in front of me. The days have been flying by, visiting with friends and family mostly, over the holidays since people have been taking lots of time off work. My friends schedules all compliment each other too so I tend to do a lot of socializing. I have the friends who work M-F who like to hang out on holidays and weekends. Then there’s the couple who have Thursdays and Fridays off who often want to come over for a game night. Tuesdays and Wednesdays seem to be the only days of the week when I know I’ll be alone.

This period reminds me of the beginning of summer when I would come home from college. I would be so exhausted from finals and paper-writing and translating Greek that I would be perfectly happy sitting around the house for almost two weeks, sleeping 12 hours a night and hardly doing anything during the day. It was a recovery period.

Now here I am, I’ve spent the past 5 years or so simultaneously working, earning degrees, and building a real estate investment business with hardly a break. So I have no problem allowing myself some laziness for at least the first few months of no longer working. While I haven’t been popping open wine bottles at 10 am, I have been getting plenty of sleep, cooking complicated dinners and breakfasts, and giving my neglected gaming PC some attention.

I’m looking forward to starting a large garden once the spring comes. And getting in lots of hiking and cycling in 2013. In the meantime the winter is reserved for gaming, movies, friends and delicious meals.

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Worry-Free Landlording

There are aspects about land lording that a lot of people just aren’t cut out for. There’s the real estate knowledge you need, the home rehab/repair skills (or at least the knowledge to know when a tradesman is doing good work or just ripping you off), and then the management aspect of working with tenants. As far as the landlord/tenant relationship, there are a few things I do to try to make everything easy.

Firstly, I charge a rent that’s somewhere around 10% below market rates. This does a number of things for me. It gives me my pick of tenants when I have a vacancy. So far, whenever I put up a craigslist ad advertising my rentals, within 24 hours I have about a dozen appointments setup to show the places to prospective tenants. Of those people I arrange to meet, about 1/3 just plain don’t show up, another 1/3 have hard luck stories or unreliable income or decide the place isn’t for them, and then there’s another 1/3 of highly-qualified, eager tenants hoping I’ll decide to rent the place to them. Compare that to those “for rent” signs you see that have been up so long they’re becoming sun-faded.

The lower rate also keeps tenants in place longer. When people feel they are getting a good deal they are less likely to shop around for another place, even if there are little things about my property that aren’t absolutely ideal for them, they’ll stay because of the cost savings. And transitioning between tenants is always an opportunity to lose money. – Whether it’s some cleaning/repair fees/time to get the place back into showroom condition, or some lost rent from people moving in and out in a less than perfectly synchronized fashion.

I’ve seen advice along the lines of “if you never have vacancies then you aren’t charging enough.” I could raise my rents by 10% and still have tenants, but if that causes me to wind up having a vacancy for even one month per year, all that extra profit is a wash-out anyway.

Anyone who is prone to worry should not consider being a landlord. If you find yourself checking your stock prices three times a day, or always glancing up to see what the DOW is doing when they tease you with it on the news, then you’ll probably find the idea of handing the keys to an asset that constitutes a sizable chunk of your portfolio over to someone you’ve talked to for maybe 90 minutes less than comforting.

I don’t find it too difficult though. Worst case, the property is insured in case of an absolute catastrophe. And considering the condition these properties were in when I bought them, a tenant would be hard-pressed to do any damage that would intimidate me and my repair skills. And I just assume, from the get go, that in between tenants I am going to have to spend up to a month’s rent in repairs when they move out, because that’s just the nature of owning property. And if it’s actually left in rentable condition then I’m just ahead of the game. Nothing irks me more than when an unscrupulous, penny-pinching landlord tries to pass off normal wear and tear as damage attributable to the tenant and uses it as an excuse to hold onto a security deposit.

When I hand over the keys to a tenant, that’s it, the property is their’s, and it’s out of my mind. I might drive by every few months to take a cursory look from behind my windshield. But I mostly try to leave the tenant with their privacy.

I think a lot of landlords want to have things both ways. They want rental income from their property, but they also want to retain control over it in the most nitpicky of ways, not allowing anyone to change a paint color or trying to keep a security deposit because a tenant hung some photos on the walls and left a nail hole. – Or demanding regular “inspections” to snoop around the house. I think when you hand over keys in exchange for rent you have to just accept that some things are going to happen in the house that you don’t like, that’s why you’re getting paid.

I also write my leases in a way that incorporates state-mandated tenants rights right into the terms of our agreement. If a judge ever gets to see one of my leases he’s going to think I’m a saint. A lot of landlords, knowingly or not, will have leases in violation of state law but most tenants never realize it because most leases don’t end up getting challenged in court. Massachusetts is a very tenant-friendly state, and I’m glad for it. I don’t want single mothers or disabled people being thrown out into the street in the middle of February anymore than anyone else. While I don’t think I have any obligation to provide charity to my tenants who can’t pay their rent. I do accept that the realities of making money off of providing people with housing means that I carry a risk of not being able to evict certain classes of people under certain conditions for limited periods of time. That’s just part of the cost of doing business. It’s a societal problem that government has decided is best dealt with by passing the risk to landlords and I knew that full well when I got into land lording so I budget for it and won’t complain (too loudly) if/when my turn to bear the burden ever comes.

Most of my life has been worry-free. I think the key is imagining the worst possible scenario, planning for it, and accepting it as a possibility knowing that I’ll be able to deal with it. When it comes to other people I plan for the worst and hope for the best. This way, whenever things go well I see a budget surplus rather than having a budget shortfall when things go wrong.

Maybe my laid-back attitude is a result of the high profit margins I’m running. If you’re a landlord leveraged to the hilt and less than a year of rent payments short of defaulting on your loans I could see it being much harder to sleep at night. But that’s the price for entering a capital-intensive business when you have to borrow nearly all of the capital. But that’s not a problem unique to land lording, any business conducted that way would be stressful.



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Just About There

Rehabbing a house is a marathon. I wake up thinking about what I can get done today and the best way to do it. I spend all day going from task to task, adjusting the to-do list as I go if I find a project requires a special tool I don’t have on hand or some material I forgot to pick up. Then I finish the day writing down what I plan to do tomorrow and hitting the hardware stores on the way home while I look forward to collapsing on the couch after dinner. Sometimes I have the satisfaction of looking at a to-do list with everything checked off. Sometimes I get the exasperation of looking at a to-do list with only a quarter of the items crossed off because I ran into so many road blocks during the day.

Some days are just so physical that I wake up the next morning, after a good 9-10 hours of sleep, with all my muscles still tired from the day before.

The good thing is I think I naturally strike a nice balance between pushing myself to get the project done, and allowing myself a few days off here and there to recuperate and spend some time with my neglected friends. Too much time off and nothing seems to ever get done. Too much time working and I make myself sick (literally), drive away my friends, and make myself miserable.

I purchased my latest house a few months ago and have been working at it entirely by myself for about ten weeks. As of today I’m just awaiting an appointment next week with a plumber and town inspector to get the gas turned on. Then, after checking that all the plumbing and appliances work correctly I will be ready to rent it out.

I purchased the house for just under $20k and the material costs of the renovations have run me just under $4,500. I replaced all the windows, rebuilt half of a farmer’s porch (in one day ;-)), patched the walls throughout, shaved all the doors so they open and close properly, installed flooring and trim throughout most of the house, sealed up the basement in multiple spots to prevent cold air from coming in, custom built some shelving in a couple of closets, installed a bathroom sink and vanity, installed several new light fixtures, refinished a wood floor and cleaned up the yard. The house is about 17 miles from where I live so I also spent a few hundred dollars in gas.

During the renovation the house next door was sold to another rehabber. The buyer, John came over to introduce himself and talk shop when he saw me working on the place. He doesn’t rent anything out, he buys cheap places, pays other people to fix them up, and then tries to sell them at a profit. He was an encouraging and positive personality. He’s been doing it for a couple of decades and looks to be in his 40′s. We swapped information and a few anecdotes and he told me to call him anytime if I ever wanted to talk about a project or need a lead on some cheap materials or labor. He bought the place next door for $40k and is hoping to sell it for $120k or so when it’s all done. It’s always nice to bump into a kindred spirit.

I’m going to try to rent mine out for about $900/month. Today was the first day in a couple of months where I didn’t wake up with a massive to-do list to work on. After breakfast, when I was trying to figure out what to do with myself, I had to triple-check in my head that, indeed, there is nothing left to do. So now I’m just going to wait for the plumber, think about getting a rental ad up so I can start looking for a tenant, and enjoy the holidays while I figure out what my next project is going to be.

Here are some before and afters:


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New England can be a cold place. My house came with a forced hot air oil furnace. I don’t know if you’ve heard but oil is kind of expensive and pretty nasty stuff.

Fortunately, the house also came with a beautiful brick and slate hearth. I kept going back and forth on whether I wanted a wood stove, or a wood pellet stove.

A wood stove just taking hunks of cord wood, being filled probably twice a day, requiring a wood shed, but allowing me to harvest all my heating fuel essentially for free. I have one friend who heats his house and apartments entirely with wood that he scavenges all year from people giving it away on craigslist, or from people in need of having a fallen tree removed from their yard. But he works pretty hard at collecting it, plus he spends a good deal of time tending the stoves in the winter time and can never stray too far from home when it’s below freezing.

You could also just pay to have cut and split wood delivered. Around here, if I bought green wood and seasoned it myself (by letting it sit in a wood shed with good ventilation, exposure to the sun and out of the rain for about a year or two) I could get it for apparently under $200 cord, and I’d probably only need just over two cords per year for my small house. Though there’s still the work of stacking the wood into the shed, and then hauling it to the house throughout the winter and tending the stove.

A pellet stove, on the other hand, takes small pellet sized pieces of wood that look a lot like rabbit food. They’re made from waste wood, saw dust, and timber specifically harvested for pellet production. They’re basically run through a machine that just pulverizes the wood and then compresses it into these small, manageable pellets. There’s still some work and stove-tending involved since a pellet stove needs to be loaded with pellets and cleaned of its ash regularly.

Neither is as easy as gas or oil, obviously. But using sustainably harvested local wood is pretty much carbon neutral, and pretty cheap. And it’s not subject to the rapid price changes that fossil fuels are.

I decided to go with a large pellet stove I found that can hold 120 lbs of pellets. Most stoves only hold about 40 lbs requiring you to refill it daily, if not more often. Whereas my stove can go for about 3 days of continuous burning on its lowest setting without any attention. I got it at a local shop and trailered it home. With the pipes and stove the total cost came to about $1,700. I ordered 3 tons of pellets for just under $800 delivered on a pallet set right outside the door next to the stove so they only need to be carried about 10 ft. I’m told I’ll probably only need about 2 tons, but I would rather have extra to save for next winter than run out and be scrambling in February for a last minute delivery.

I put the stove and piping in in only a couple of hours. And we have already had some cold days to test it out and it’s working great. There’s a glass door with a flickering flame that lights up the kitchen with a warm light, and it’s capable of pushing out an impressive amount of heat.

So right now I don’t have any plans to use any oil this winter.

Once downside of the pellet stove is that it requires electricity to run. Not a significant amount, it just uses electricity to self-light itself, and then to run a couple of fans and an auger that turns at set increments to distribute more pellets into the burn chamber to keep the fire going. However, in the event of a power outage, which, in a New England winter, is pretty much to be expected, it won’t be able to run without a generator. Which is now on my shopping list. In fact, I think I might buy 2. One for me, and one to sell at a scandalous markup during the next extended power outage when all the hardware stores have run out of generators and they sell on craigslist for 3 times their typical list price.

A wood stove might be nicer in some fantasy, extended disaster scenario when it might be hard to get pellets delivered. But I could stock up on pellets. Or, worst case, I could pull out the pellet stove and put a wood stove in its place with just a few hours work. I plan on putting a wood stove in the garage at some point so I’ll already have one on hand anyway. And nothing bad is going to happen anyway, so I don’t think about those scenarios too much ;-)

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I put together a little worm composter. I want to build up my garden in the next few years which means I’ve got to build up my soil.

The setup is beyond simple, it’s just some plastic tubs with a few holes drilled for drainage. Supposedly the compost tea that comes seeping out the bottom is a fantastic fertilizer, and the worm castings are great soil additives. Basically I just threw some shredded news paper and damp card board in there with some table scraps. I plan on putting it in the basement in the next few weeks once it gets a little colder. Apparently the worms can survive the winter, but they go dormant and don’t produce anything, so if I put them in the basement perhaps they’ll be a bit more active for me.

I purchased the starter worms online for $12 I think it was. I looked around a little for someone local to get them from but couldn’t find anyone. Apparently I can expect to wait a few months before the worms have multiplied and hopefully, before I know it, I’ll have more than I know what to do with. Which means I can basically just toss them into the garden.

I have an old canoe in the woods behind my parents house that I built in high school. It’s a wood and fiberglass thing I put together my senior year for fun. It’s still functional but it’s seen better days. I’m thinking I may take that, put it behind my garage, drill a drainage hole in the bottom, and use it as a much larger worm composter in the spring.

The soil on my lot could use all the help it can get.

Here’s a video of a guy with a big composter in his back yard. It looks like he used some kind of tub or trough for his bin.

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